Bar Codes and Mass Graves: A Reading by Seven Emerging Êzîdî Poets
“I have no biography,” Jaff said in Kurdish, looking out over the audience assembled in the wood-paneled auditorium. Translator Bryar Bajalan echoed his words in English. “I do not have a biography because I do not have an identity. My poetry is my biography.” The second of six emerging poets of the persecuted Êzîdî, also commonly spelled Yazidi or Yezidi, to perform at Şingal Şingalê Me, a reading at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) on October 11th, Jaff’s lack of biography had made his introduction to the stage slightly awkward for the event’s hosts, Bryar and me, who otherwise read each poet’s biography as they were welcomed to the stage. The history undergirding that discomfort—the fact of his people’s recent genocide by ISIS, the latest notch on an ancient tally of eradication attempts—courses through the work of all of the young poets who read in Sulaimani that evening.
Located in northeastern Iraq, within the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the campus of the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani skirts the south side of the wide highway toward the contested city of Kirkuk, on the western edge of Sulaimani, a comparatively young Kurdish city, founded in 1784 as a peaceful meeting grounds for members of the region’s competing tribal factions. The city has fostered an active literary culture since its very founding, producing poets from the nineteenth-century polymath Piramerd to the contemporary lion Sherko Bekas. Indeed, Kurdistan’s poets are so respected here that a list of the names of the city's major thoroughfares would read like the table of contents for a definitive anthology of Kurdish literature. The busts of poets both classical and contemporary adorn its parks. AUIS, founded in 2006, gathers a 1,400-member student body composed primarily of Kurds and Arabs alongside smaller populations of the region’s minority groups, including the Êzîdî. The modern glass-and-stone edifice whose sharp angles contrast with the gentle slope of the surrounding hillsides hosted our auditorium, which slowly filled with students, professors, and the public. The six young poets—Emad Bashar, Saad Shivan, Jaff, Zêdan Xelef, Sarmad Saleem, and Zaeem Ashor Findi—sat in plush leather chairs on a riser, several eyeing their phones to silently mouth the poems they would soon read aloud.
“No Êzîdî can go back,” Emad Bashar, elder statesman of the group at 26, told me over the messaging app Viber. “It left a part of us dead inside. I try to resuscitate it with romantic shock, electric shock, the shocks of life. Useless. They killed a part of us that can never be healed.” Emad’s long narrative poems evoke the Êzîdî oral tradition, with their repeated refrains and songlike verses. He was the first of the poets to read at AUIS, and ended his set with his poem “The Slave,” which exemplifies that quality in its middle section:
I wish I were a slave…
Says the match man
Lighting his last cigarette
I wish I were a slave…
Says a lost tourist
Tossing his passport in the sea
I wish I were a slave…
Says a girl with curly hair
Wearing a hospital uniform
We wish we were slaves…
Say street vendors
Scattering at the outskirts of the village
We wish were slaves…
Say the drunks at dawn
Staggering their way back to life
—Translated by Bryar Bajalan and David Shook
His performance culminated in his singing the toast that serves as the poem’s grand finale, its protagonist, an escaped slave, raising his cup in defiant survival from high on a hill. Emad, the best known poet of the group so far, has done much to champion his peers, workshopping their work, encouraging them personally, and promoting them publicly. His second book, Me and You Are Alike, will be published this month in Arabic. While the few regional bookstores will likely carry the book, Emad himself will bear the bulk of the responsibility for its reaching an audience in Iraq.
Bryar and I organized Şingal Şingalê Me for Kashkul, the arts and research collaborative where I am presently Artist in Residence. Bryar works at Kashkul, too, as a primary investigator leading a project called Mosul Lives, conducting life interviews with Mosul residents about their lives before the occupation of ISIS and the US invasion in 2003, both to document the city’s history and to begin to imagine what its future may look like. Forcibly Arabized as a Kurdish child, today he has transformed that trauma into a remarkable ability to understand Iraqis from each of the country’s distinct cultures, and his multilingualism and cross-cultural awareness make his urgent work possible.
Like the event itself, the Kashkul organization is hosted at AUIS. In the Sorani Kurdish of Iraqi Kurdistan, the word kashkul was originally used to describe a Sufi’s begging bowl. Over time, it came to designate the commonplace books where Sufi scholars would collect the eclectic knowledge they gained as they traveled across the region, apprenticing themselves to various masters and transcribing their wisdom alongside poems, histories, and even recipes. Today, Kashkul, as an organization, extends the word’s metaphor to the next degree, gathering a group of young artists and scholars who in turn collect the culture of the region, each pursuing projects of their own design, ranging from documentary films about Kurdish pomegranate harvesting to the collection of oral histories in Mosul, documentation of the production processes of traditional handicrafts to the translation and analysis of Kurdish jihadist poetry.
Kashkul’s director, the poet Dr. Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse, translator of books by the Kurdish poets Kajal Ahmad and Abdulla Pashew, first heard of this group of Êzîdî poets in an email she received from a stranger, Mairéad Smith, an MA candidate at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University. Mairéad researches the creation of a specific form of collective memory called “cultural trauma,” as it is “narrated through representations of the genocide and past suffering in poetry.” In her work, she argues that these “poets repair the social fabric of their community through reconfiguring a collective Êzîdî identity and repair the wounds of the present through their engagement with the past.” Mairéad first encountered this group of young poets in Duhok, the closest major city to the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps where most of them live. “I was looking for a more ethical way of understanding such a sensitive and emotional topic, one that might provide alternative narratives which were not yet being heard,” she explains, contrasting her approach to the more common method of accumulating source texts by conducting extensive subject interviews, which can often trigger PTSD. Thanks to a friend’s introduction to Emad and Reham Barakat, she soon found just those narratives.
As part of her research, Mairéad translated selections of poetry by eight different poets. For our event, she, Bryar, and I collaborated in various configurations to translate the poems that the poets themselves selected to read. In some cases, Bryar and I would translate directly from the Arabic, one of his native languages. In others, we would adapt Mairéad’s literal translations, paying special attention to how the poems would sound when read aloud. Bryar and I have extensive experience with this method of translation, as co-translators of the exiled Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi. Our lively discussions about Al-Raddi lead us down etymological wormholes and through YouTube playlists, and we are fortunate to be able to ask questions of and accept criticisms from the poet himself. This proved true with the Êzîdî poets, too, who were especially gracious with their translators. Living between languages themselves, most of them are speakers of Arabic and Kurdish with smatterings of Turkish, Persian, and English. They understand the liminality of translation. Moments before the reading began, Emad spotted a mistranslated word in one of his poems, a simple lexical mistake. He told Bryar, who was discussing the difference between the words “mistake” and “sin” with Jaff, ultimately deciding together that his poem should be called “God's Sins.” Changes were happily made, and our translations were improved. After the event, I asked Mairéad what it was like to hear me read new versions of the poems she had initially translated. Had I butchered them? She responded with the same graciousness as the poets themselves, and we discussed how different ends necessitated different philosophies of translation, how a poem could benefit from multiple translations, and how the translator must, in our opinion, approach the original-language text with humility, cognizant of the fact that no perfect translation exists and alert to the abundant possibilities.
A week after the event, Saad Shivan (b. 1995) and I conversed over Facebook about first books. He sometimes worries that he’s not ready yet. For him, the greatest failure would be to publish a book that doesn’t somehow transform its reader. “I wanna tell how we are, how we live with shit every day,” he wrote me. Saad, like his peers Sarmad Saleem (b. 1993) and Zaeem Ashor Findi (b. 1992), primarily writes short lyrics punctuated with straightforward statements of fact. His work is distinct among this trinity of epigrammists in the way that his language skates the slippery surface of memory. In one untitled poem he read that evening, he mimics the pauses, justifications, and clarifications of everyday speech:
In my old village, I mean before the war—
I repeat: the old one—
We walked alongside the coffins flooding out into the streets
Wrapped in blankets and not the country’s flags
At the time, we didn’t really have a country,
Or at least we didn’t feel that we did
—Translated by Mairéad Smith and David Shook
Over the course of his short poems, Saad often employs this effect so that their speaker’s voice gradually takes on greater authority, before climaxing in dense, charged couplets, like this one he read which ends his poem “[The clock shows 1 a.m.]”:
There are no oil wells where we were living, in Shingal,
but I assure you, we are rich in mass graves
—Translated by Mairéad Smith and David Shook
The poem manages in its mere two lines to evoke the relative international economic irrelevance of his people's region, the resulting lack of political will, the name of the Êzîdî’s beloved mountain homeland, and the devastating reality of their mass murder at the hands of the Islamic State: As I finished reading the translation of the poem, a heavy silence settled over the auditorium, a collective breath held for the endless seconds till Saad began his next poem.
Jaff is the only one of the seven poets to write in Kurmanji, also known as Northern Kurdish, sometimes translating his own work into Arabic to increase its potential audience. Much of his work is set in the tent camps where the majority of Êzîdîs now live. He laments that a boy can no longer climb mischievously onto the roof—that simple play is distant as myth. The people that inhabit his poems often resemble ghosts. Their constant fleeing has incapacitated them from doing anything else, even in the face of romantic love. Perhaps, as his friend Saad writes in one poem, “There are events that humans do not live beyond, they just continue to exist.” Life in the camps, as depicted in poems by several of these poets, crawls by. Everything but boredom is tightly rationed. Jaff’s poem “Delirium” begins with the view from the flap-door of his cramped tent:
Through the door of the tent
Seven steps between me and the street
The child who died 23 years ago
He throws his stones at the window and flees
It's unclear if the child throwing rocks is a dead child or its ghost or a young man dead to the world, numb with the hopelessness of the camp's interminable purgatory. Indeed, does it matter? He continues:
The first girl that I loved
Left seven letters around me and fled
—Translated by Bryar Bajalan
In their brief poems, Sarmad and Zaeem brandish devastatingly deadpan irony to recount Êzîdî tragedy. Sarmad's poem about the Mediterranean drowning of a group of Êzîdîs bound toward Germany ends with the line: “The fish were happy.” In an untitled poem that includes the ice cream vendors that mysteriously recur in his work, Zaeem writes:
Numbers mean so much to us
When the war ends, for example
They will write 7,532 children killed
6,084 houses destroyed
754 ice cream vendors killed over the summer
14 orphans in elementary school
—Translated by Mairéad Smith and David Shook
The reading at AUIS was Zaeem’s first ever public reading. From his seat at the left edge of the stage, he smiled as the auditorium filled before the event began. I imagined his adrenaline building as mine would. The last reader of the evening, he read with confidence, gesticulating with the narrative and rhythmic movement of his incisive poems. Sarmad, who read just before him, looks outwards toward other literatures to contextualize what has happened to his people, who return to the “habitable” but sacked ruins of their homes, “without seeing Godot, who waited for so long.” In another poem, he receives a strange email—“Dear Sarmad. You are lonely.”—from a great Iraqi poet, who narrates the young poet’s tragic recent past and present for him before politely asking him to quit writing, ending with the bold discouragement “None of us hear you.” In a six-line poem we were unable to translate before the event, the speaker sashays down the streets of Şingal in high heels belonging to his displaced mother, ecstatically pronouncing her return as he embodies it. In its final line, the fantasy shatters when he falls flat on his face.
Before reading his first poem, Zêdan Xelef leaned over the podium and stared into the audience. In English, he quoted Allen Ginsberg, both in exhortation and to suggest that he was committed to doing so himself: “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.” After a dramatic pause, he read his first poem, here in its entirety:
Two Poems in an Incomplete Poem
For every fifty destroyed towns in this country, there is a poem as empty
as the country
And for every camp built, a long poem, longer than the range of a missile,
Deeper than the well of oblivion, which we never get to fall into,
Wider than Sasha Grey’s vagina, which is closer to the eyes of IDPs than
Let me tremble—
Broader than the space occupied by the stench of Safeen's armpits
A deeeeeep breath and I will return,
Larger than the earth,
Bolder than a tongue insulting the camp manager,
Kinder than my middle finger, which still rises toward the world whenever
I hear the word “life,”
And lighter than the “hi” from a prostitute’s mouth,
Filled with more meaning than a cemetery,
Simpler than pitching a tent, more complicated than breathing in it.
—Translated by the author, David Shook, and Bryar Bajalan
With the mention of his middle finger, he quickly raised it up over the podium, a brief and intimate fuck you to all who watched the decimation of his people.
Of the six poets on stage, Zêdan radiates the most bookish nature. In the week leading to the event, he asked that any publicity photos feature him upside down, as he submitted them. Indeed, every photo on his Instagram and Facebook accounts appear upside down, smiling in his horned rims. As with Jaff’s rejection of a biography, Zêdan’s insistence on being represented as he wishes makes sense in the context of Êzîdî erasure. In his poems he refers with equal ease to Anne Sexton and Santa Claus, Frida Kahlo and Sasha Grey, all against the backdrop of the IDP camp, a place he endows with an imposing physicality meant to contrast with the invisibility of both the individual and collective Êzîdî. His poem “In the Camp’s Kindergarten” begins: “In the camp’s kindergarten/I asked each one of them to draw something missing from this world/Each one of them drew themselves!” Zêdan, just 23, has lived in the Chammishko IDP Camp, in the town of Zakho, since November 2014. His poems cleverly weave together narratives of both personal and collective traumas, as well as ideas both concrete and abstract. He finishes his reading with “A Barcode Scanner,” a perfect example of that masterful loomwork. The poem’s permutating refrain describes the IDP camp as seen from above, a barcode of browns: “Tent block, then muddy street, then tent block.” With this recurrent image spanning the page-long poem, Zêdan catalogues the commodification of the IDP: “In the beginning there was the number and the number became a price tag stuck to us/The number made our selection easier from afar, no need to point.” A tomato seller wishes that potential customers “could learn to associate the color red with something else”; a desperate IDP wanders through the camp with his ration card in his hand, extended “like a mine detector.” Life goes on. In Zêdan’s poems, IDPs surf Facebook and stream porn on their cellphones.
The young poet is also a translator, having studied the subject at the University of Duhok, which enables him to do the initial translations of his own poems. Over dinner he lamented how few contemporary English-language poets have been translated into Arabic, and how difficult it is to acquire books from abroad. “In Arabic it’s like Americans quit writing after the Beats,” he complained, quickly clarifying that he appreciates them nevertheless. One of his ambitions is to translate more poets from English into Arabic. Later, over WhatsApp, he explained the importance of the oral tradition, how he grew up surrounded by epic poems sung as stiran, the Êzîdîs’ form of social song. The community’s millennium of persecution has steadily whittled away their corpus of poetry, sizable slabs of it calving into oblivion at peaks of violence. “Doubtlessly we lost many Êzîdî poems because of the genocidal campaigns against Êzîdî by Muslim conquests, Ottoman Empire, Al-Qaeda, and recently by the Islamic State.” After explaining that he has been much more influenced by his life experience than by other writers, he mentioned his admiration of Iraqi-Assyrian avant-garde poet Sargon Boulos, translator of Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and W.S. Merwin. Before our conversation went on, Zêdan made a point to mention that his friends, Jaff, Sarmad, and Emad “all have their own effect on my experience.”After the reading at AUIS, Zêdan and Jaff spent an hour in conversation with Kurdish poet and translator Choman Hardi, a professor at AUIS and the Founding Director of its Center for Gender and Development Studies. They had read her work in English, and appreciatively scribbled furious notes as she answered their questions about her own poetry, translation, and contemporary Kurdish poetry.
A week after the event, I wrote Mairéad to ask more about her research. I wondered how she as a trauma and memory researcher understood the function and importance of these poets’ work, as much for a community that faced an uncertain and difficult future as for a wider readership, within the region and around the world. I hoped to understand how she could quantify the utility of poetry within the framework of her field. The conclusions of her work to date encourage me. She responded:
While poetry of course isn’t the cure for the ills of the Êzîdî community and it cannot heal the wounds felt by so many, it plays an important function in creating the space in which these ills and wounds are narrated and cannot be forgotten, so memory work is the poet’s most important role right now. They are documenting what they witness, they are searching for the nature of the pain and attributing responsibility for this pain, and this is really helpful for recovery of the community as a whole.
We closed the reading at AUIS with a poem by Reham Barakat (b.1990), one of the few female Êzîdî poets writing today. Reham, unable to read in person because of a prior commitment, sent us her poem “Dice,” which Bryar and I read in Arabic and English. The poem drips with righteous anger, more visceral and indignant than the work that had preceded it, indicting both the captors and rapists of Êzîdî women as well as those who failed to save them. After her pronouncement of their evil, she commands her redemption. Using poetry, like her six contemporaries on stage, she bears witness, wielding memory to validate her people’s experience of personal and collective trauma, imputes to the responsible parties their crimes, and perhaps, in so doing, contributes toward community healing. The poem ends:
I have become torn, dirty clothes
Traced with filth
A vessel for lust’s thirst
Thrown as a dice
On the game board of politics
Once a fatwa
Sung by praying sheikhs
And once a cause
Banged on about
Your tasteless dreams brought me disgrace
Redeem me from your shame
From your oozing plans
Your cause is a lie
And your promises are lies
And your speeches are lies
And your civilization is a lie
And your history is a lie
—Translated by Bryar Bajalan and David Shook
Poet, translator, and filmmaker David Shook was raised in Mexico City. He earned a BA at the University of Oklahoma and an MSt at Oxford University. In his debut collection, Our Obsidian Tongues (2013), Shook explores the violence and hunger of everyday life, steeping his poems in lush imagery and sensory detail. In...